Introspection and the haze of definitions

In one of my linguistics classes last year, my professor claimed that the arbitrariness of language was noted as early as 2500 years ago in China, by the philosopher Laozi. For those who don’t know, arbitrariness means that the sounds of language don’t have any direct connection to what they mean, they are purely conventional associations. Usually, this insight is attributed to a linguist named Saussure, from the early 1900s, which gave rise to “structuralism” and “semiology.”

Laozi did notice that language was arbitrary, but it certainly wasn’t the intent of his observations. Really, he was pointing out that not only did words lack a connection to their meaning, but because of it they were a hindrance in the search for Truth. This is the first thing that sparked my interest in language and cognition, albeit in a roundabout way, back in high school.

I’ve been noticing lately about how this mentality really underlies my work though. For many of the things I discuss, it’s not so much a matter of defining things clearly as it is breaking down those concepts. My non-definition of “comics”: Comics is not a precise combination of text and image values, but rather a cultural object, a sub-culture, a community, a genre, etc. that exist in society.

I give a similar treatment to “Language.” Rather than saying that “language” is a thing that people can concretely put their finger on with one defining element, it is instead a manifestation of several features that include: A sense modality, sequence, meaningful reference, combinatoriality, communicative use, social usage, a social identity,… along with several others.

In both of these cases, the “definition” comes out of an aggregation of a variety of elements. But can you really say that a conglomeration of parts is really a whole “thing”? Buddhist thought would say “no” (which it does quite powerfully to the notion of a “self”). The definitions are fully understandable, yet empty.

This is also fairly apparent in my definitions of “writing” and “drawing,” which I explored in my (rather long) MA thesis. The gist was that these notions are contingent upon the systems that we use and their mapping along a large triangular map of signs. The whole triangle is the “Truth,” but nobody accesses in full. They have to access it through the portions that they cut up.

The understanding of the parts and the “why” is really what I’m after, and pushing through the illusion that the words create a concrete concept is the only way to get there.


  • I’ve always liked that about your work, the kind of nebulous treatment of “definition”. It kind of surrounds the subject but provides no blinking red BULLSEYE. Circumstantial understanding… the uncertainty principal or something. Anyway, this appeals to me. All this seems to ring true (or ring a kind of truth, or whatever…).

    Been enjoying the blog.

  • I’m sure that indefinition just makes some people loopy for something more concrete, so I’m glad to hear someone isn’t in tizzy with it at least.

    The stuff in my next post tap into that same issue quite a bit too. Unsurprisingly, its all related!

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